Taking things personally

October 9, 2007

Saturday afternoon, while working at Barnes & Noble, I had a customer make a complaint to a manager. She wasn’t happy with my customer service.

I was in the middle of helping a woman in her early sixties who was looking for a book on vertigo. We didn’t have any in the store, so I recommended to her that she browse titles online, read their descriptions and any reviews, and try to decide on a book to order. As I was explaining this, a second woman — maybe fifty years-old and traveling with another woman a few years younger — came up on the line behind the woman I was helping.

The first woman, who it turns out was suffering vertigo, asked me what kind of books she might search for — books on cardiovascular topics, perhaps? As it turns out I know something about the subject.

I began to explain to her that my father had an episode about a month ago — he woke up dizzy and nauseous — and went to the hospital for tests. I explained also that my brother was a doctor, and from talking with him about our father and the tests the hospital ran on him, I had learned that vertigo can come from a problem with your heart, your brain, your inner ear — lots of things.

My whole explanation probably took 30 seconds.

Right in the middle of this though, the woman who had come up on line with her friend stepped forward to interrupt: “Excuse me, where can I find the Nikki Sixx book?”

I did not take this well, for several reasons. Number one, I don’t like pushy people. Number two, I don’t like being interrupted. Number three, I have some kind of responsibility to the customer I am helping — it’s not fair to let someone else steal my attention away.

And finally, there’s number four. Number four may take a little explaining.

Picture the scene. On my left I have a customer trying to find a book that might help her deal with a bona fide and somewhat debilitating medical problem. And on my right I have another customer unable to wait her turn because she had to have the lost diaries of a heroin addict from a 1980’s hair metal band.

I told the woman that I would help her in a minute. I would say that I used a fairly even-tempered tone of voice. The expression on my face, however, told the whole story of what I thought of her and her rudeness. It’s not my fault, really. It’s an occupational hazard of working in a middle school and dealing with bratty pre-teens on a regular basis.

In other words, she got my “teacher face” — and adults don’t take that very well.

The woman and her friend stormed off. About 10 minutes later one of my managers came up to me.

“Those two women weren’t happy.”

I had just about forgotten the whole thing, but it came back to me in a couple of seconds.

“What did they say?” I asked. What my manager told me almost caused me to burst a blood vessel in my forehead.

The women told him that they had asked for help only to be brushed off because — and this is how they characterized it — I was having a “personal conversation.”

On saying that, my manager had to act quickly to calm me down, because my protestations threatened to attract the attention of the entire first floor. I took a deep breath, composed myself, and calmly told him the entire story. He reassured me that he figured it was something like that.

I think my track record at work has earned me a reputation for dealing well with customers, even the difficult ones. So that was the end of it between me and my manager. I feel a little bad that he had to listen to her nonsense, but I suppose that’s why they pay him the big bucks.

There is nothing quite like dealing with the public — especially at the hourly wage paid to the average retail clerk.


My new (old) job

October 3, 2007

I just found out today that I have been hired back to my old job, testing software. The company I worked for was bought a while back by a larger company. I’m getting a better deal than I had when I left, both salary and benefits. Even my title is improved: Quality Assurance Software Engineer.

Isn’t that great? I can tell people I’m an engineer.

Actually, I know a number of genuine engineers, so I can’t tell them, they’d never believe me. My friends, too, are smart people, so I don’t think I could fool them into thinking that I was an engineer.

Come to think of it, a lot of people know the difference between an engineer and an inflated title. Just think about all those repairmen trying to pass themselves off as “refrigeration engineers.”

I guess I really won’t be able to get anyone to believe it.

Of course, there’s always my mom. She’ll believe I’m an engineer. She’ll want to believe it, and what’s more important than that?

Mom — your boy’s an engineer!

I start Monday morning at 8:30.

Enjoying the gorgeous mosaic

October 3, 2007

On the way back from a job interview that I had today, which I’ll write about after I know how it went, I stopped off at a nearby bookstore to relax over a cup of coffee. While on line waiting to place my order, I overhead the customer in front of me ask the girl behind the counter the kind of question that to me is a symptom of just how crazy things have gotten now that a good portion of the population goes out of its way to take every chance at demonstrating how progressive it is.

The young lady ringing up the coffees seemed nice enough. I chatted with her a bit after she rang me up. She was in her early twenties, and had cultivated a fun-spirited, quirky little look for herself, with green as her theme. She had green streaks through her hair. She had theatrically painted eyelids in a bright shade of green. She had big green earrings on as well.

I have no problem with any of that. She was cheery and friendly. My problem is with the politically correct goofball she was ringing up.

The woman she was ringing up seemed like an educated professional. In fact, I’m sure she was. I think that’s what explains her question to the counter girl.

She asked the young lady behind the counter what the green was all about. What she actually had assumed was that the green was an expression of the young lady’s “culture.”

I’m sorry, but what cultural heritage did she think the young lady was expressing? Is there perhaps a lost tribe of savages sequestered in some far-off corner of Ireland? Where on earth is there a culture that applies green hair dye and eye shadow, and tops it all off with giant green earrings?

Now, you can find me enjoying the food at an Indian restaurant, or watching a French film, or listening to Egyptian belly dance music — any number of things. But this woman, God bless her, has surpassed me and a good many of the rest of us in her enthusiasm for cultures other than her own.

For this woman, apparently, the world is still something like the “Dark Continent” of a couple hundred years ago, where around every bend is a wondrous new spectacle to behold — where one can even expect to find an exotic creature ringing up a mochachino.

So, the next time life seems a little drab, just take a look around, and indulge in the kind of childlike wonder I witnessed today.

If I tell you, she’ll have to kill me

September 26, 2007

The phone rang earlier this evening, and when I picked it up I was greeted by a man on the other end from an outfit named something like Audience Participation Surveys. I hate getting caught by telemarketers, and Caller ID on my answering machine usually saves me from that, but I thought the area code sounded like it belonged to one of my girlfriend’s friends.

Having caught hold of me, the guy explained that he “wasn’t selling anything”; he was just conducting a survey. I’ve taken part in telephone surveys on a couple of occasions. They tend to be interesting, but a little overly long. Just as I was about to tell him that I wasn’t inclined to participate, he informed me that he was looking to interview a woman between the ages of 18 and whatever. Did I have any in the household?

I had none, sadly. My girlfriend was out attending a professional function, and quite frankly she’s the only approved female occupant.

The guy asked when he could reach her, and I told him he could try back tomorrow at this time. He then asked me her name, so that he’d “know whom to ask for” when he called.

“Do you live with a woman?” I asked the caller.

I had to repeat my question, probably because he wasn’t prepared for it.


“Well,” I chuckled, “you just say the same thing you did this evening when you call tomorrow, and I’ll hand the phone over to her if she’s here.”

For his sake, should he one day live with a woman, I hope that he appreciates the wisdom in my example.


September 25, 2007

The actor, William Sadler, came into my Barnes & Noble this evening (Monday). He’s one of those character actors that everybody has seen but many people can’t quite place. He’s been in lots of movies and television programs.

I didn’t recognize him for who he was when he asked me for help as I was passing him in the military history aisle, though I did think he looked familiar. I figured he was a customer that had been in often enough but that I hadn’t dealt with before. I helped him find a book on Chesty Puller, “the most decorated marine in history.”

A little while later while Mr. Sadler was in our café, my friend, Meghan, who recognized him from a favorite show of hers from some years back, pointed him out to me. Before the words, “Shawshank Redemption,” were completely out of her mouth, I realized where I knew him from.

He mentioned to one of the cashiers, as he was checking out at Cash Wrap, that he was playing the part of Chesty in a forthcoming mini-series, which confirmed my guess that he was buying the book as research for an upcoming role.

As funny as it may seem, there are a number of stars that come into the Poughkeepsie store. Several weeks back I stood only a foot and a half away from Paulina Poriskova, the Czech-born supermodel whose poster graced the walls of my freshmen dorm room, back in the day.

I must say, bumping into Mr. Sadler did not hold quite the same thrill for me — but it was okay.

My other blog

September 20, 2007

I’ve been busy over at my other blog, Coarsely Ground. There are three recent posts commenting on stories in the news: one on the reaction to the Iranian president being denied a visit to Ground Zero, another on a recent gaffe by John McCain on the campaign trail, and a third on the real ticket to success in today’s world.


Pop quiz at 1 AM

September 15, 2007

The night before last I met a few of my friends out at a bar. By 1 AM two of us were left. We finished up our beers and left the bar. My friend drove off and I remained behind in the parking lot for about 5 minutes to let my car warm up.

I’ve been having trouble with my car. The fuel pump seems to be going, so unless the car is really warm, it won’t run well at all. When I figured the car was warm, I pulled out of the lot and started to drive home. Almost immediately after making the right turn out of the parking lot, what should pass me going in the opposite direction but a cop car. No big deal, I thought.

As it turned out though, I hadn’t been paying attention while waiting for the car to warm up. The parking lot was well lit, and so I never noticed that I had neglected to turn on my headlights. When I pulled out of the lot my lights were still off.

Big mistake.

Not 60 seconds went by when I looked into my rearview mirror to see the cop car behind me, lights flashing. “Oh, here we go,” I muttered. I put the dome light of my car on and pulled over.

Now, I wasn’t any more nervous than I ever am when pulled over, because I knew that I had not had too much to drink. As a rule, I drink moderately. The cop came up to my window and said why he had stopped me. I explained about the fuel pump and the lights in the lot — an honest mistake, right?

A few more pointed questions by the officer, and I had to admit where I was coming from and how many beers I had had. Remember, he had to have seen me pull out of the bar, and even one beer leaves an unmistakable trace on the breath.

He asked if I thought I was okay to drive, and I told him I believed I was.

And then, in a very friendly, “just doing my job” tone of voice he explained that he was pulling DUI patrol that night. “How about you step out of the car and we’ll make sure you’re okay to drive?”

So there you have it — I was on my way to taking my first ever field sobriety test.

Again, I knew how much I had had to drink, and while drinking I always keep in mind the charts we’re all given in high school health class mapping out drinks per hour according to your weight and the resulting blood alcohol level. I felt confident I was okay to drive and that the cop asked me to step out of the car because he had no reason to believe I wasn’t lying about how many drinks I had consumed.

I think perhaps the police are lied to so often that they begin to lose all faith in humanity.

The cop acted very professionally the whole time, a fact I appreciated. I’ve noticed that police officers treat me far differently now than when I was 20 and being pulled over every few months for doing 76 in a 55. I suppose I can count this as one of the few benefits of growing older.

Before we started any of the tests, I looked right at him and in a friendly but diplomatically firm manner told him, “Officer, I’ll do anything you ask; but I’m not reciting the alphabet backwards. I couldn’t do that if you gave me Ritalin.” He cracked a good natured smile and said not to worry — he doesn’t ask anyone to recite the alphabet backwards.

He asked me to follow the tip of his pen with my eyes, without turning my head; to recite the alphabet beginning at letter “D” and ending at “S”; and to stand on one foot with my other foot 6 inches off the ground, while counting “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand…” He didn’t stop me until I got to 30. He then asked me to blow into some kind of breathalyzer — though apparently, the portable version he used is meant only to contribute to giving the cop enough evidence to haul you in for the real chemical test. In New York, the results from the box I blew into aren’t admissible in court.

A lawyer would tell you to refuse any of these field sobriety tests. And such advice is unequivocally sound — if you’re going to fail them. In the end, it’s your call. Lawyers are in the business of billing hourly.

The cop told me to have a seat in my car and to wait for him. A minute later he returned my license and registration and bid me get home safely — and to make sure I put my headlights on.

I started my car; put my headlights on; double-checked that they were on; pulled off of the shoulder; noticed my heart skipping a beat, and then another; and made my way home.

I’ve always been a good test taker.

Last one out turn off the lights

September 10, 2007

The college year began about a week ago, and at the bookstore we have students coming in trying to find textbooks and other materials. It is at times rather depressing to have to deal with these budding scholars.

Two young ladies came in, obviously annoyed over an assignment from their American history professor. The assignment? Here’s how it was explained to me.

“I need you to look up a couple of books using the keywords ‘Little Big Horn’ and ‘Wounded Knee.’ I think it has something to do with the Civil War.”

Now, I’ve taught social studies. And that experience has encouraged me to dial down my expectations. But is it really expecting too much to think that on hearing those two “keywords” together, a bell should go off in the average high school graduate’s head and trigger the thought, “Gee, doesn’t this have something to do with the Indians?”

I’m not sure I should have gone out of my way to help them. I mentioned General Custer and saw not the slightest flicker of recognition on their faces.

This did nothing to improve my mood.

Not long after, a couple in their early twenties came in asking for the Spark Notes for Bodega Dreams, by Ernesto Quinonez. As far as I can tell, the book was not published before 2000. Let’s assume it’s a wonderful book. Even so, do these people not understand what Spark Notes and Cliffs Notes are all about?

I’m waiting for a customer to ask me for crib notes to Harry Potter.

These two examples are from one eight-hour shift. For the past two weeks we’ve had similar examples every single day.

Parents routinely come in to buy college textbooks for their little darlings, who presumably are home studying their class notes. I had one father proudly tell me that his daughter was pre-med — at Johns Hopkins, no less. Somehow, I spent nine years as an undergraduate (enjoy that bit of irony on me) and managed to shop for books all by myself. Perhaps that father’s friends were tired of hearing it, and he jumped at the opportunity to come to the bookstore to brag to someone paid to listen.

Whatever the case, I’m not impressed. And I want to stay out of the hospital the daughter ends up working at — since I’d feel a bit uneasy lying on an operating table with Daddy ready to hand a scalpel to his little girl.

Opportunity plays “ring and run”

September 8, 2007

Yesterday morning I got up and found the following e-mail, sent the night before, in my inbox:

I received your email address from the DOE. We are looking for a social studies teacher. If interested, please contact me. We will be conducting interviews tomorrow morning starting at 9:00 am.

To be exact, it was 8:30 on Friday morning when I was reading this.

The invitation came from the principal of a high school in New York City. I can’t be sure what time he sent it, because for some strange reason (and I’ve never seen this before) there were four time stamps in the header of the e-mail, ranging from 9:30 on Thursday evening to 3:52, Friday morning.

I suppose if I were mad with ambition I could have jumped in the shower, shaved, ironed a dress shirt and pants, dressed, grabbed my resumé, plotted a course to the school using MapQuest, and raced my car down the Taconic. Even so, I could not have gotten to the school before noon.

Undoubtedly, someone living in Brooklyn, or Yonkers, or having checked their e-mail before bedtime — or having a relative working at the school — would have arrived there before me. I am willing to bet that the main office at the school hosted a capacity crowd that morning.

The principal’s e-mail perhaps served only to satisfy the legal requirement to advertise for qualified candidates. He may have had a pretty good idea of who he would hire all along. By the time I got there, a new teacher would have been hired, and the principal would have been out having lunch.

Now, reading between the lines of the e-mail, let’s have a little fun.

School started in New York City on Tuesday, September 4. The principal sent his e-mail the evening of September 6. It’s possible that at the last minute the school received extra funding and decided to spend it on another social studies teacher. After all, anything is possible. The school may have had some kind of oversight and neglected to hire a needed teacher, and in the rush of the first few days of school didn’t notice until the end of the third day of classes.

But all sarcasm aside, this being New York City, it’s far more likely that a teacher decided — after three days of living hell — that enough was enough, and either put in notice that Friday would be his or her last day, or quit on the spot.

So there you have it — an invitation of dubious sincerity for an opportunity of dubious worth.

I don’t feel bad about choosing to stay home in my pajamas.


September 6, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti died at age 71 just a few hours ago. As someone who at one time studied to be an opera singer, I’ve enjoyed listening to his recordings for many, many hours.

For me, the 20th century had three great voices: Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Luciano Pavarotti. Picking this trio may seem like a strange choice because they are three very different singers, but the three shared an incomparable quality.

In hearing any of the three sing, I cannot help but smile and feel glad to be alive. The three had an exuberance — a joie de vivre that is hard to find even among the best performers.

Many opera aficionados would claim that other tenors were better singers or musicians. During the 80’s when I was in music school it was perhaps thought a bit simple to prefer Pavarotti to, say, Placido Domingo. But as beautiful as Domingo’s voice was, and his first-rate musicality notwithstanding, there was a kind of unaffected brilliance to Pavarotti’s voice that to my ears and sensibilities surpassed all other tenors.

His singing was exciting and seemingly effortless — and ever youthful. That was his art.

There was a time in my life when I listened to his La Boheme with Mirella Freni, probably the most lush recording of Puccini’s masterpiece, almost every day. And though I’ve owned four recordings of this opera, and have seen it performed three times at the Metropolitan Opera, no performance produces for me the goose bumps that this one does.

Opera may be an acquired taste in this day and age, but Pavarotti’s contribution to spreading a love for it surpassed anyone of his generation. To enjoy opera is to have your heart opened to the beauty of this world, and of this life. And for a depth of feeling and appreciation of beauty that I might not have otherwise, I have to thank that man.